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Friday, September 5, 2014

A Sacred Place Is Where You Find It

Surprisingly enough, although I have been to Rapid City and its environs before, I had never heard of Devil's Tower. I only stumbled across it this time because it was featured on a throwaway tourist map of the area that was forced upon me by some motel. Devil's Tower! I thought excitedly. I love landmarks named Devil! Consider, for example, The Devil's Golf Course in Death Valley - if it was named after you-know-who, you know it's going to be worth seeing.

Of course, as readers have reminded me since, Devil's Tower is the destination featured in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Given its fame and the way it sticks up out of the ground like a veritable stairway to the heavens, it is rather difficult to imagine how I could have missed a landmark like this on my prior trips through Wyoming, particularly when it's visible from miles and miles away:

Devil's Tower from a Distance

I suppose I can't be blamed too much for overlooking it. As you can plainly see, It's plunk out in the middle of nowhere. Have no fear about your morning java, though. The lonely road to Devil's Tower is proof positive that you really can get a cappuccino literally anywhere in the United States:

Coffee Shop Nowhere

Contrary to its name, Devil's Tower was not traditionally perceived as a haven for the Dark Lord, but rather as a holy place that featured prominently in both Native American lore and in the traditions of white settlers of the region.

Devil's Tower Sign I

Indeed, some of the Native tribes still visit the tower for religious purposes, as is evidenced by the prayer cloths and bundles scattered all about the wood that surrounds the tower:

Devil's Tower Sign II Cropped

I myself am not a very spiritual person. But when you're standing in the shadow of this unusually designed and seemingly inexplicable 900-foot monolith, it's hard not to be moved.

Devil's Tower Closeup II

But as permanent and everlasting as it seems, the tower, of course, will not live forever. All about its feet lies abundant proof that it, too, is slowly self-destructing, that the days of its existence may be numbered to but a moment in geologic time. For while the igneous rock of which the tower is formed is far tougher and less subject to the forces of erosion than the sedimentary rock that once surrounded it, it also cannot survive indefinitely. One by one, the columns of which the tower is constructed will break off and crumple in heaps all around it, creating a field of giant stones in the midst of this quiet and peaceful wood.

Broken Columns

It will be a lengthy process. It has been a hundred years since the last column collapsed, and in the meantime, the tower continues to grow taller as more sediment is eroded from the plain. The tower itself also stands immune to one of the direst natural calamities of the region - the wildfire.


These blackened trees appear to present evidence of just such a calamity. Fires are a natural part of the western ecology, and, left to their own devices, help to renew the forest floor without causing excessive damage to established trees. But, as is often the case when people interfere with nature, fires have become more devastating to our vast areas of forest in the last hundred years. This is because human efforts to suppress wildfires have caused buildups of fuel in wooded areas - which means that when fires do burn, they burn much hotter and are far more destructive.
It's a lesson for all of us. Every year our skies are darkened by the smoke and soot of wildfires; every year our fire fighters risk their lives attempting to control these blazes in an effort to spare our homes and other places we hold dear. It's only natural that in our approach to the world, we put humans first. But at what cost? Do we really derive any long-term benefit from interfering with the natural ebb and flow of our forest ecologies? Or are we merely postponing the inevitable and, in the process, causing greater harm than good?

It is human nature to develop attachment to the land. The land in which we are born, the land in which we grow up, the lands in which we experience our first love, our first adventure, our first taste of freedom; the land in which we choose to grow old and die. Places form a large part of how we define ourselves, of how we comprehend our position in the world. Who among us has not gone out of our way to drive past a house we lived in as a child? Who among us does not remember "where we were" during important events in history, such as the John F. Kennedy assassination, or 9/11? Who among us does not imagine the chapters of our lives as beginning and ending with the places we have lived, because every new place is, in our minds, distinctly different from the last, even if the move was only across a state or down the block?

The Native Americans understood this. Many of their origin stories are centered around the land, around the gifts of land, the gifts of places that were granted to their people by their god or gods. It is perhaps one of the reasons why the shift to reservations was so painful, so intolerable to the Native tribes. You cannot simply remove a people from one land to another and expect them to be satisfied, even if the trade were, on paper, fair and equal. The land does not represent merely a way of life, a means of earning a living. It is the very essence of a people.

We will always fight to protect our sacred places, whether they be a stretch of coastline on the eastern seaboard, a beloved old elm in our own front yard, or a four-block neighborhood in the city of Cleveland. Places move and inspire us. We cannot bear to see them altered or destroyed. But of course, eventually they must be. Even a monument like Devil's Tower cannot stand forever. Nothing can.

But perhaps we can take comfort in knowing that this particular landmark will continue to stand, for as long as we ourselves are living, and for many generations after us. It is, for all human intents and purposes, an essential and everlasting part of the landscape. It is land at its very best. Permanent. Indestructible. Sacred.

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